You’ve probably heard people talk about sulfates, and seen “sulfate-free” called out on shampoo and cosmetic labels. Did you ever wonder... what IS sulfate? And why is having a product labeled sulfate-free or SLS free such a big deal?
With the help of Dr. Joe (Cincotta), an award-winning product developer and our in-house WOW wizard of formulation, we’re breaking down everything you need to know about sulfate, including the ever infamous sodium lauryl sulfate and sodium laureth sulfate (SLS).
WHAT IS SULFATE?
Yes. Really. The sulfates that are found in so many shampoos were actually developed to wash your clothes. If you check the ingredient list on almost any commercial detergent, the first ingredient will be sulfate - likely sodium lauryl sulfate or sodium laureth sulfate.
So how did they end up in shampoos? What do sulfates do in shampoo?
Back in the day, before chemists created sulfates, the earliest forms of soap were made of naturally derived lye and lard. These soaps had very high pH (alkalinity), and while they were good for household chores (dishes, bedclothes, washing garments), they were aggressively harsh on hair and skin.
Then, in the 1940’s, scientists synthesized the first cleansers based on a chemical called sodium lauryl sulfate. This “sulfate” led to the first man-made detergent, and it was quickly adopted and used in a wide variety of household cleaning products.
From there the sulfate craze blew up! Sodium lauryl sulfate and sodium laureth sulfate were basically in everything - including shampoos and personal care products.
WHY WERE "SULFATE-BASED" CLEANSERS SO POPULAR?
Three very good reasons.
1) They were cheap and easy to produce.
2) They were less damaging to hair and skin than lye or lard-based soaps.
3) They lathered like crazy, which gave people a sensation of “powerful, super cleansing” when the lather rinsed off.
A whole new generation of super-charged, sulfate-based shampoos took over the hair care industry.
But sulfates were not all good news (as we know now). Great at cleaning (most!) fabrics and objects, sulfates are, unfortunately, a harsh way to clean your hair.
WHAT DO SULFATES DO TO YOUR HAIR?
Why are sulfates bad for hair? Because sulfates are harsh chemical compounds with a high-charge density, their impact on each hair strand is two-fold.
1. They strip away natural oils
Sulfates like sodium lauryl sulfate and sodium laureth sulfate don’t just lift away dirt and grime. They also strip away the delicate layers of natural moisturizers (created by your body’s own sebum) that protect, smooth and keep your hair and skin optimally healthy.
2. They make your hair strands swell up and cause the outer cuticle layer to open
This is due to sulfates’ high-charge density. Once the cuticle is open, it’s much more difficult to keep anything critical inside, like the natural moisturizers and proteins that keep your hair hydrated and strong.
This is an issue for everyone, but can be especially problematic for people with dehydrated or compromised hair (like those with naturally curly texture, color-treated or chemically-processed hair), as these types are already damaged, weak, porous, rough and dull.
DOES SULFATE STRIP HAIR COLOUR?
Yes, sulfates also cause hair color to fade. When the cuticle layer is lifted due to swelling, color molecules leach out just like natural moisturizers.
The bottom line? If you value your hair’s health and hair color, make sure your shampoo does not contain sulfates. Instead, look for a formula that’s SLS free.
SULFATE FREE MEANING + SLS-FREE ALTERNATIVES
So if sulfates are a deal breaker… what’s the best shampoo for your hair?
It’s true! Just because a shampoo is labeled sulfate-free doesn’t mean it has your hair’s best health in mind. Let’s dive into it!
SULFATE-FREE SHAMPOO BENEFITS
What does sulfate free mean? Unlike sulfates, gentler sulfate-free cleansing agents are intended to have a low-charge density to help minimize or eliminate hair swelling while sudsing. Without swelling, your cuticle remains smooth and closed, keeping all vital moisture, proteins and color locked inside.
The key word here being “intended.” Because like we said, not all sulfate-free formulas are created equal. In fact, there are two main ways sulfate-free shampoos actual fail to protect to health of your hair:
1. Many sulfate-free shampoos are formulated with cheaper sulfate-free cleansing agents
High quality sulfate-free cleansers can get pretty expensive. So in order to lower costs, cheaper alternatives are often used.
These shampoos, while labeled “sulfate-free,” contain ingredients like “sodium C14-16 olefin sulfate” or “sodium xylene sulfonate” that, while not chemically classified as “sulfates,” have properties (like a high-charge density) that exactly mimic harsh, aggressive sulfate behavior. Aka, they swell the hair strand, which results in moisture and protein loss, plus color fade.
2. They try to cleanse AND solve your hair problems
You’re probably familiar with thickening / defrizzing / hydrating, etc. shampoos. Most shampoos today try to multitask while you suds (including sulfate-free shampoos).
While this might sound ideal, the truth is these formulas contain added ingredients that are designed to stay behind on your hair and scalp in order to deliver on their benefits. Overtime, this can result in buildup that never washes out, leading to scalp issues, blocked follicles and hair thinning.
SULFATE-FREE SHAMPOO INGREDIENTS
How to check if shampoo is sulfate free? If you’re wondering what ingredients you need to be on the lookout for when it comes to shopping sulfate-free shampoos, we got you covered!
A sulfate free shampoo means you want these ingredients…
- Sodium Cocoyl Glycinate
- Sodium Cocoyl Isethionate
- Sodium Methyl Cocoyl Taurate
Types of sulfates in shampoo you don’t want…
- Sodium Lauryl Sulfate
- Sodium Laureth Sulfate
- Ammonium Laureth Sulfate
- Ammonium Lauryl Sulfate
Other ingredients to avoid…
- Conditioning, thickening or anti-frizz ingredients
For more information on hair care ingredients to avoid, check out our ultimate ingredients guide.
THE BEST SULFATE-FREE SHAMPOOS
We know, that’s a lot of info to digest! And the thought of trying to find a shampoo that checks off all these boxes might seem overwhelming…
Luckily, our team has been making shampoos for over 40 years. So when developing our current formulas, our Color Wow Lab took special care to keep your hair’s best interests in mind.
High-quality sulfate-free cleansing base
We formulated using only low-charge density sulfate-free cleansers that won’t swell your hair strands or open the cuticle.
Ultra gentle + non-stripping
Made with a special Japanese amino acid-based cleansing agent called Sodium Cocoyl Glycinate (often found in face washes), our shampoo cleanses thoroughly without stripping away your hair’s natural oils. This cleansing agent is also high-foaming and delivers a luxurious, rich lather not often found in sulfate-free formulas.
100% clean, residue-free
Our formula contains NO silicones, conditioning, thickening, anti-frizz or any ingredient that results in buildup. Every ingredient rinses completely off for your healthiest, cleanest hair and scalp.
Thanks to our non-swelling sulfate-free cleansers that keep your color from leaching out, our formula is clinically-proven to prevent color fade for at least 20 washes.
Anti-thinning Root Locking Technology (in Hooked Shampoo only)
Our Curl Wow Hooked Shampoo is specially formulated with root-strengthening Procapil® to help reduce shedding and breakage. This is especially ideal for fragile or textured hair that’s frequently pulled tight, braided, and weaved.
LET'S WRAP IT UP: WHAT ARE SULFATES IN SHAMPOO? WHAT DO SULFATES DO TO YOUR HAIR?
Sulfates are harsh chemical surfactants that dry out hair and can strip away color. The best piece of advice from Dr. Joe: “When it comes to shampoo, take away the sulfates. And if you want the cleanest, healthiest hair and scalp, take away any ingredients that have nothing to do with cleansing.”